The decision by a federal bankruptcy judge grants members of the family who own Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, sweeping protection from any liability for the opioid crisis.



Members of the Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma won immunity from opioid lawsuits today. In exchange, they will pay more than $4 billion, with much of that money going to help people and communities suffering from addiction. U.S. bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain issued the landmark ruling in a federal bankruptcy court in New York. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann was listening and is here now.

Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So what more did Judge Drain say in this ruling today?

MANN: A lot. He spoke for more than six hours - a complicated ruling. As you mentioned, the Sacklers are going to pay roughly $4.3 billion, give up ownership of Purdue Pharma, but they'll admit no wrongdoing, keep most of their wealth and opioid lawsuits against them will now be blocked. In his comments, Judge Drain said this was a bitter outcome. He said, point blank, he believes at least some members of the Sackler family are liable for the harm caused by OxyContin. Drain said he'd hoped to see the family pay more money for their role in the opioid crisis, but he said this was the best deal negotiators could get.

KELLY: Well, let's talk through some of the many parties with a stake in this. The Justice Department plus nine states opposed this settlement. They had urged Judge Drain not to approve it. Did he acknowledge their concerns?

MANN: He did, but he spoke angrily at times about the opponents of this settlement. He described them as unrealistic at one point. He accused state officials of lying when they claimed that this bankruptcy process hadn't been transparent enough. The Justice Department argued in this trial that blocking these opioid lawsuits against the Sacklers is unlawful. But Judge Drain pushed back today. He said bankruptcy law gives him full authority to do this.

KELLY: Are we expecting this ruling will be challenged?

MANN: It looks more and more likely. The DOJ has signaled an appeal as possible, so have many states. We should know in the next couple of weeks, Mary Louise, whether that will happen.

KELLY: And just step back for a second and remind us of the role of the Sackler family at Purdue.

MANN: Yeah, under the Sacklers' leadership, Purdue Pharma introduced this pain medication, OxyContin, in the late 1990s, and the company's misleading and at times illegal marketing of OxyContin contributed to the nation's opioid crisis. It's claimed more than half a million lives. It was a tsunami of opioid lawsuits that drove Purdue Pharma into bankruptcy.

KELLY: Are you hearing reaction to the ruling from people whose lives or whose families were destroyed - devastated by OxyContin?

MANN: A lot of people are grieving, you know - the Sacklers, who served on Purdue Pharma's board, said they've done nothing wrong. They say they acted ethically, and they declined to apologize. But many of their critics really view them as the public face of corporate America's role in this opioid crisis. The fact that they'll walk away from this epidemic, which is still raging with a clean legal slate and most of their wealth, it's agonizing for people like Alexis Pleus. Her son, Jeff, became addicted to OxyContin, and he died of an opioid overdose.

ALEXIS PLEUS: To watch the Sacklers not be held accountable by everything that they have done. And we feel that there is no accountability and no justice here.

MANN: And I should say, Mary Louise, that NPR reached out to the Sacklers for a comment on this ruling. We have not heard back.

KELLY: OK. I want to note before we let you go there is support for this bankruptcy plan. A lot of government officials have come out in support of it, including a lot of states attorneys general. What do they like about it?

MANN: Well, the bottom line is government officials, and even many opioid victims say the settlement could really help, you know, sending billions of dollars to fund drug treatment and health care programs. And today, Judge Drain spoke at length about that, saying this is a model for how communities can begin to recover with money that comes from Purdue Pharma and from members of the Sackler family.

KELLY: NPR's Brian Mann.

Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.